“Actors are emotional. If somebody would come up to us and say, ‘Sign here. Everybody’s doing it for civil liberties,’ or ‘Sign here to save the bread of children of writers banned from the studios because of their political beliefs,’ I would sign because it was a right cause in which I believed.” –John Garfield
John Garfield is remembered as an American actor who frequently portrayed defiant working-class characters. Though his life was tragically cut short, he left behind a memorable filmography and legacy.
Jacob Julius Garfinkle was born on March 4, 1913, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side to parents David and Hannah Garfinkle. His father worked as a cantor and had a laundry business, working to make ends meet. Sadly, Garfinkle’s mother would pass away two years after the birth of the couple’s next son, Max. As Garfinkle struggled to provide for his family, the children were raised by various relatives throughout New York.
While Garfinkle’s father remarried, Garfinkle had difficulties in school and joined different gangs. He would be expelled three times before being sent to an alternative school. Additionally, Garfinkle contracted scarlet fever, which led to permanent damage to his heart.
Growing up in the Yiddish Theater District, Garfinkle developed a knack for mimicking performers of the day. Due to his stammer, he worked through speech therapy and eventually developed an interest in speech and performance. He began to participate in school plays, assemblies, and debate, finally finding a passion to pursue during his academic career.
Later, Garfinkle enrolled in acting lessons, leading to a recommendation to the American Laboratory Theatre. He worked both on-stage and off, eventually making his Broadway debut in 1932’s Lost Boy. In the same year, he would adopt the stage name Jules Garfield. While the run of the show was short-lived, he established himself as a stage actor.
As the years went on, Garfield aimed to transition to working in films. Though Paramount and Warner Bros. had expressed interest in Garfield, they did not wish to honor his request of allotting time off for working on stage. Over time, Warner Bros. decided to allow for this clause and Garfield began to work in films, though this upset many of his stage-actor peers. While at Warner Bros., he would take on the name John Garfield.
In 1935, Garfield married Roberta Siedman. The couple would have three children: Katherine, David, and Julie.
Garfield’s breakthrough film role was in Four Daughters (1938), earning him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In addition to working in films, he would also go on to help establish the Hollywood Canteen with Bette Davis, while also traveling overseas to entertain troops. Following World War II, Garfield appeared in a string of successes, including The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with Lana Turner, Humoresque (1946), and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). He would earn another Academy Award nomination, this time for Best Actor, for his performance in Body and Soul (1947).
Though he rejected communism, Garfield became involved in the Red Scare, denying that he knew any communists in the film industry. His reputation was damaged over time, leading him to be blacklisted and blocked from employment as a film actor for the rest of his career.
In 1952, Garfield and his wife separated. Just a few days later, Garfield became seriously ill and passed away at a friend’s apartment. His heart issues were likely made more pronounced due to the stresses of blacklisting. He died on May 20, 1952, at the age of 39.
Today, there are some tributes and place of relevance to Garfield that remain.
In 1920, he and his family lived at 222 Clinton St. in Manhattan. The original building still stands.
By 1930, the family was living at 826 E. 178th St. in the Bronx. The building has since been razed. This is the property today:
In 1940, Garfield and his wife were living at 5816 Libby Way in Hollywood, California. The home remains to this day.
Garfield also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 7065 Hollywood Blvd.
Though his career was short, Garfield’s film performances document his incredible talent and passion for performance.